Michael Frayn’s ‘Noises Off’ is a classic, a landmark of metatheatrical humour that also mercilessly brought the curtain down – literally – on the rum sex comedies of the ’60s and ’70s.
Debuting in 1982 and spending most of the rest of the decade in the West End, it’s a farce about a farce, following a cast of dysfunctional actors as they tour the British provinces with a woeful trouser-dropping comedy called ‘Nothing On’ while trying not to murder each other.
It’s a play everybody should see once, just to marvel at its precision construction, especially the virtuosic, backstage-set second half, in which the cast press ahead with a matinée of ‘Nothing On’ while having a furious bust-up behind the scenes.
I’m not sure it’s a play everybody should see twice, though. I enjoyed Lindsay Posner’s 2011 Old Vic revival the first time. But even then it nagged me that there didn’t seem to be much you could do with ‘Noises Off’: it’s so technically precise and of its era that there’s little room to play around with it. The production has been dusted off for a fresh run, this time under the auspices of Bath Theatre Royal. But once you’ve ooohed at the comic timing, it is somewhat inevitable that a 40-year-old satire on a style of comedy that peaked 50 years ago might not feel entirely box-fresh.
And I wonder if its aging has been accelerated by various social movements of the last decade. In particular, the bullying misogyny of Lloyd, the director of ‘Nothing On’, feels pretty uncomfortable now, although that might be because Alexander Hanson doesn’t put enough ham into his performance for it to feel actively fun.
At the Old Vic, I believe it had an entirely white cast; here it’s white except for the two young women of colour – Pepter Lunkuse’s put-upon stage manager Poppy and Sasha Frost’s young actress Brooke – who Lloyd shamelessly shags and gaslights. Lloyd’s behaviour feels… unexamined already, and while I guess that basically forgivable within the context of a pastiche sex farce, the inference that he’s preying on young Black women doesn’t make it less icky.
The physical business is still wildly impressive, of course, and plenty of the jokes still elicit a chuckle. On the whole, it’s solidly cast: Tracy-Ann Oberman blessedly lets rip and chews the scenery as gossipy luvvie Belinda; sole ’11 returnee Jonathan Coy is fun as the desperately fragile Frederick. Felicity Kendall proves her comic chops when in her ‘Nothing On’ rôle of hapless sardine-obsessed housekeeper Mrs Clackett, although she feels miscast as her ‘real’ character Dotty: she has zero chemistry with Joseph Millson’s Garry – they are really not believable as two people having an affair.
Basically, ‘Noises Off’ is both timeless and dated and I honestly think that it’s a rare play that would probably benefit from a straight-up modern remake (one that goes beyond bland tribute act ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’). It still holds up. But it’s showing its age.